Is Taiwan ready to play the Trump card?

Taiwan should not underestimate the new U.S. president

Taiwan should not underestimate the new U.S. president

Taiwan should not underestimate the new U.S. president (AP photo)

Taiwan was no different from the rest of the world Wednesday. When Donald Trump steamed toward victory in the United States presidential election Taiwan time, reactions ranged from shock to disbelief to dismay.

As in different parts of the world, including the U.S., observers had expected that Hillary Rodham Clinton’s wide-ranging experience in politics and diplomacy would carry her all the way to the White House, even without the outlandish statements and behavior of her opponent.

In the end, a wave of anti-establishment feeling swept across the country and put a brash real estate mogul and entertainer into the White House.

The whole world is now wondering what stands to happen after Donald Trump takes over next January, especially since little is known about his thinking on international affairs beyond the slogans about Mexico, Russia and the Middle East.

Taiwan, as a country both friendly to the U.S. and strongly reliant on its international support, has more reasons than others to consider the attitudes of the next president.

The administration of President Tsai Ing-wen was quick in denying allegations it had underestimated Trump’s popularity and gambled on the U.S. following in Taiwan’s footsteps and electing its first woman president too.

In her congratulatory message, Tsai emphasized common values such as respect for freedom, democracy and human rights.

Foreign Minister David Lee said Thursday that one of the president-elect’s closest foreign policy advisers visited Taiwan recently and also met with Tsai. According to media reports, the adviser was former Heritage Foundation President Edwin Feulner. Lee, who said he had known the visitor for more than 30 years, had arranged for him to meet Tsai at the Presidential Office on October 13, reports said.

Last month, Trump foreign policy adviser Bert Mizusawa described Taiwan as “a good friend and an important member of the international community.”

Statements couched in polite diplomatic speech are to be expected, especially when a new government tries to dismiss fears of the unknown. Nevertheless, if any one word can be used to describe Donald Trump, his views and his campaign, the term “unpredictable” comes to mind.

Relations between Taiwan and the U.S. can be approached from different dimensions: politics and diplomacy, defense, and trade.

On the diplomatic front, there seems to be a feeling that Trump will be tough on China, and therefore he might automatically favor Taiwan.

That could be a serious simplification, as little is known about whether Trump has even ever given thought to the island. There of course remains the fact that Taiwan did not play any role in the U.S. presidential election campaign and is unlikely to feature high on the new administration’s agenda, considering Trump’s general interest in dealing with Mexico, Russia and the Middle East.

If he surrounds himself with “traditional” Republicans such as neo-conservatives and academics from think tanks like The Heritage Foundation, Taiwan’s interests could be relatively safe.

However, Trump has shown a willingness to leave the well-worn paths of traditional U.S. foreign policy, for example in his praise for Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. There is always a scenario possible in which he meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping and likes him sufficiently to give up his earlier rhetoric against China on trade issues.

In that option, Trump might just sacrifice Taiwanese interests and put them on the table as bargaining chips, as some commentators have suggested. As a businessman with little interest in geopolitical niceties, he might regard Taiwan as just another instrument to close a beneficial deal favoring the U.S. or at least his administration.

In the military field, early comments in Taiwan after the election result expressed optimism that Trump would be more likely to sell weapons to Taiwan, though there was no direct evidence in statements by the president-elect. The drive to sell arms might also be motivated by the new administration’s wish to ramp up exports and let partners of the U.S. pay more for their defense.

Trump wants allies to spend 3 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on the military. Since this is already one of the aims of President Tsai’s administration, the issue should not be a problem and could even be shown to Washington as evidence that Taiwan is a true friend.

Trump’s anti-Chinese statements again suggest that he might be less susceptible to objections and protests from Beijing against arms deals.

In the third domain, economy and trade, Taiwan risks to be labeled among the targets for criticism from the new president. During his campaign, Trump has voiced openly protectionist views, accusing China and other countries in the region of unfair practices, and even of “stealing jobs” from the U.S.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Taiwan has been so eager to join, looks dead, at least if Trump follows through on his protectionist rhetoric.

“Taiwan certainly needs to be in the TPP, other trade agreements or even other bilateral investment agreements to reduce its dependence on China,” according to Bill Sharp, a visiting scholar at the Institute of Taiwan History at the Academia Sinica, as quoted by The News Lens International.

“This part of the world has been able to prosper, based on the security and stability that American foreign policy has given to it,” Sharp said in an earlier interview. Trump was unlikely to realize that if the U.S. withdrew into a “cocoon of isolationism,” it would invite new as yet unseen security challenges.

While it would be easy to lambast Beijing on trade issues and for its military expansionism in the South China Sea, reactions from fellow U.S. business people with interests in China might be difficult to resist, some commentators have said.

In addition to a new president, the U.S. will also see both houses of Congress controlled by a Republican majority. Since U.S. lawmakers are far more independent-minded than their docile colleagues in say, European multi-party democracies.

If a President Trump veers too wildly off course, there might be conflict, but on issues regarding Taiwan’s vital interests, that could be a positive note. Members of the U.S. Congress from both parties have a tradition of launching and approving motions sympathetic to Taiwan, and that is unlikely to change. If the White House threatens to sacrifice Taiwanese interests, the country will have friends ready to intervene and call a halt.

Nevertheless, in any event, Taiwan will be wise not to underestimate the new U.S. president, as so many pundits and political opponents have done over the past year. The Tsai Administration must be ready to face any unexpected twists in turns in the thinking of the new U.S. government, and keep close ties to its traditional friends in Washington while making new ones.